“Sleeping/Waking: Politicizing the Sublime in Science Fiction Film Special Effects” in Sean Redmond and Leon Marvell, Endangering Science Fiction Film (New York and London: Routledge, 2016).
There is a moment in Andrew Ross’s account of sf when he cautions against a history of the genre that is ‘overlaid by prejudices against the North American vulgarization of the high-minded and a socially critical European SF created by respectable intellectuals’ (1991: 104). Sf as a genre is the product of an industrialized age – either a loosely defined branch of fiction produced within the niche market of magazines or the streamlined mechanism of the Hollywood system. The industrial revolution transformed Europe and parts of North America from rural to largely urban societies and workers changed from being laborers, artisans and craftspeople to an alienated workforce undertaking regulated shifts. Popular culture, itself a product and representation of mass industry, occupies an ambiguous position that serves to make industrial society bearable, whether through providing a sense of escapism and relief (albeit a catharsis that risks perpetuating the power structure) or allowing the envisaging of alternatives (that might challenge these structures). One pleasure associated with popular culture is the experience of spectacle and the sublime. These can have a transformative effect upon the individual, whether it creates contentment with the system or provokes a more dangerous, revolutionary response. In this chapter I will link various notions of the sublime as evoked by special effects to sf as ‘cognitive estrangement’ (Suvin 1979) and note some of the political implications of such effects. I will focus on films such as They Live (John Carpenter, 1988), Monsters (Gareth Edwards, 2009), Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013), Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood, 2013), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), and Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009). This discussion will not assume a North American/European binary to the genre, although it largely focuses on Hollywood films.